‘We have been looking for someone to practise our English on,’ he said. ‘Our clients are all Americans, and the only English we know is——’ He repeated something that little boys write on the walls in London. ‘You may be useful. Come downstairs.’
He led me down a winding staircase into a narrow passage, deep underground, and so low that I had to stoop in places. It was stiflingly hot and very dark, with only dim, yellow bulbs several yards apart. There seemed to be miles of dark labyrinthine passages—actually, I suppose, a few hundred yards in all—that reminded one queerly of the lower decks of a liner; there were the same heat and cramped space and warm reek of food, and a humming, whirring noise (it came from the kitchen furnaces) just like the whir of engines. We passed doorways which let out sometimes a shouting of oaths, sometimes the red glare of a fire, once a shuddering draught from an ice chamber. As we went along, something struck me violently in the back. It was a hundred-pound block of ice, carried by a blue-aproned porter. After him came a boy with a great slab of veal on his shoulder, his cheek pressed into the damp, spongy flesh. They shoved me aside with a cry of ‘Sauve-toi, idiot!’ and rushed on. On the wall, under one of the lights, someone had written in a very neat hand: ‘Sooner will you find a cloudless sky in winter, than a woman at the Hôtel X who has her maidenhead.’ It seemed a queer sort of place.
One of the passages branched off into a laundry, where an old, skull-faced woman gave me a blue apron and a pile of dishcloths. Then the chef du personnel took me to a tiny underground den—a cellar below a cellar, as it were—where there were a sink and some gas-ovens. It was too low for me to stand quite upright, and the temperature was perhaps 110 degrees Fahrenheit. The chef du personnel explained that my job was to fetch meals for the higher hotel employees, who fed in a small dining-room above, clean their room and wash their crockery. When he had gone, a waiter, another Italian, thrust a fierce, fuzzy head into the doorway and looked down at me.
‘English, eh?’ he said. ‘Well, I’m in charge here. If you work well’—he made the motion of up-ending a bottle and sucked noisily. ‘If you don’t’—he gave the doorpost several vigorous kicks. ‘To me, twisting your neck would be no more than spitting on the floor. And if there’s any trouble, they’ll believe me, not you. So be careful.’
After this I set to work rather hurriedly. Except for about an hour, I was at work from seven in the morning till a quarter past nine at night; first at washing crockery, then at scrubbing the tables and floors of the employees’ dining-room, then at polishing glasses and knives, then at fetching meals, then at washing crockery again, then at fetching more meals and washing more crockery. It was easy work, and I got on well with it except when I went to the kitchen to fetch meals. The kitchen was like nothing I had ever seen or imagined—a stifling, low-ceilinged inferno of a cellar, red-lit from the fires, and deafening with oaths and the clanging of pots and pans. It was so hot that all the metal-work except the stoves had to be covered with cloth. In the middle were furnaces, where twelve cooks skipped to and fro, their faces dripping sweat in spite of their white caps. Round that were counters where a mob of waiters and plongeurs clamoured with trays. Scullions, naked to the waist, were stoking the fires and scouring huge copper saucepans with sand. Everyone seemed to be in a hurry and a rage. The head cook, a fine, scarlet man with big moustachios, stood in the middle booming continuously, ‘ça marche deux æufs brouillés! ça marche un Chateaubriand aux pommes sautées!’ except when he broke off to curse at a plongeur. There were three counters, and the first time I went to the kitchen I took my tray unknowingly to the wrong one. The head cook walked up to me, twisted his moustaches, and looked me up and down. Then he beckoned to the breakfast cook and pointed at me.
‘Do you see that? That is the type of plongeur they send us nowadays. Where do you come from, idiot? From Charenton, I suppose?’ (There is a large lunatic asylum at Charenton.)
‘From England,’ I said.
‘I might have known it. Well, mon cher monsieur l’Anglais, may I inform you that you are the son of a whore? And now—the camp to the other counter, where you belong.’
I got this kind of reception every time I went to the kitchen, for I always made some mistake; I was expected to know the work, and was cursed accordingly. From curiosity I counted the number of times I was called maquereau during the day, and it was thirty-nine.
At half past four the Italian told me that I could stop working, but that it was not worth going out, as we began at five. I went to the lavatory for a smoke; smoking was strictly forbidden, and Boris had warned me that the lavatory was the only safe place. After that I worked again till a quarter past nine, when the waiter put his head into the doorway and told me to leave the rest of the crockery. To my astonishment, after calling me pig, mackerel, etc., all day, he had suddenly grown quite friendly. I realized that the curses I had met with were only a kind of probation.
‘That’ll do, man p’tit,’ said the waiter. ‘Tu n’es pas débrouillard, but you work all right. Come up and have your dinner. The hotel allows us two litres of wine each, and I’ve stolen another bottle. We’ll have a fine booze.’
We had an excellent dinner from the leavings of the higher employees. The waiter, grown mellow, told me stories about his love-affairs, and about two men whom he had stabbed in Italy, and about how he had dodged his military service. He was a good fellow when one got to know him; he reminded me of Benvenuto Cellini, somehow. I was tired and drenched with sweat, but I felt a new man after a day’s solid food. The work did not seem difficult, and I felt that this job would suit me. It was not certain, however, that it would continue, for I had been engaged as an ‘extra’ for the day only, at twenty-five francs. The sour-faced doorkeeper counted out the money, less fifty centimes which he said was for insurance (a lie, I discovered afterwards). Then he stepped out into the passage, made me take off my coat, and carefully prodded me all over, searching for stolen food. After this the chef du personnel appeared and spoke to me. Like the waiter, he had grown more genial on seeing that I was willing to work.
‘We will give you a permanent job if you like,’ he said. ‘The head waiter says he would enjoy calling an Englishman names. Will you sign on for a month?’
Here was a job at last, and I was ready to jump at it. Then I remembered the Russian restaurant, due to open in a fortnight. It seemed hardly fair to promise working a month, and then leave in the middle. I said that I had other work in prospect—could I be engaged for a fortnight? But at that the chef du personnel shrugged his shoulders and said that the hotel only engaged men by the month. Evidently I had lost my chance of a job.
Boris, by arrangement, was waiting for me in the Arcade of the Rue de Rivoli. When I told him what had happened, he was furious. For the first time since I had known him he forgot his manners and called me a fool.
‘Idiot! Species of idiot! What’s the good of my finding you a job when you go and chuck it up the next moment? How could you be such a fool as to mention the other restaurant? You’d only to promise you would work for a month.’
‘It seemed more honest to say I might have to leave,’ I objected.
‘Honest! Honest! Who ever heard of a plongeur being honest? Mon ami’—suddenly he seized my lapel and spoke very earnestly—‘mon ami, you have worked here all day. You see what hotel work is like. Do you think a plongeur can afford a sense of honour?’
‘No, perhaps not.’
‘Well, then, go back quickly and tell the chef du personnel you are quite ready to work for a month. Say you will throw the other job over. Then, when our restaurant opens, we have only to walk out.’
‘But what about my wages if I break my contract?
‘Boris banged his stick on the pavement and cried out at such stupidity. ‘Ask to be paid by the day, then you won’t lose a sou. Do you suppose they would prosecute a plongeur for breaking his contract? A plongeur is too low to be prosecuted.’
I hurried back, found the chef du personnel, and told him that I would work for a month, whereat he signed me on. This was my first lesson in plongeur morality. Later I realized how foolish it had been to have any scruples, for the big hotels are quite merciless towards their employees. They engage or discharge men as the work demands, and they all sack ten per cent or more of their staff when the season is over. Nor have they any difficulty in replacing a man who leaves at short notice, for Paris is thronged by hotel employees out of work.